Gianni Downs: The scenic route

Written by Marissa Perino
Photos by Issi Glatts
March 28, 2018

By the time the show opens, Gianni Downs’ work is already done.

As a scenic designer, Downs' favorite parts of the creative process all happen before opening night. His field is one of the crucial elements behind any onstage performance. He speaks of his process as an extension of history.

“The techniques are ancient.  Even though I’m using acrylic paints now, the techniques are the same,” he said. “There’s a real tactile feel to it, and it feels great.”

When walking into his office, Downs can sometimes be found crouched below his desk, connecting wires and testing software. Other times, he sits in his chair sketching for his latest project, the sleeves of his button-down shirt always rolled up.

Downs described scenic design as anything visual the audience will see onstage aside from the actors and their costumes. This includes any backdrops, the constructed stage and props that make the scene, whether it is a motel room or a city skyline. He talks about this design as creating the world where the story takes place.

“Theater is a collaborative art, and on top of that, it is responsive to a script,” said Downs. “I’m never working in a vacuum.”

Downs’ journey began working backstage in high school, where he was first introduced to theater. He then completed his undergraduate education at the University of New Hampshire, about an hour and a half outside his small hometown of Rumney, New Hampshire. He entered college with the intention of majoring in computer science but quickly transitioned to scenic design after assisting with campus productions.

Gianni Downs in the Stephen Foster Memorial theater (thom)

After graduating, he moved several times for jobs, landing in Pittsburgh for the first time in 1998 to find work while he waited for another project. He would return to the Steel City after receiving his MFA in scenic design at Brandeis University in 2003.

“I fell in love with the city, fell in love with people here and couldn’t leave,” Downs said. “It is a small city that supports a huge art community, which I have not seen anywhere else.”

That was nearly two decades ago. Downs now boasts an impressive portfolio, which includes sketches, watercolors and digital drawings, along with the research behind each and every performance.

He works with theaters such as the Pittsburgh Playhouse and PICT Classic Theatre, along with consistent work out of town at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where he just closed the play “The Humans.” Downs is currently working on two new productions — a show called “The Nomad Motel” for the City Theatre in South Side as well as “Recoil,” the final Mainstage production of the 2017-2018 Pitt Theatre Arts season.

After working on and off with Pitt for about 13 years as a scenic designer, he now works as the director of undergraduate studies, the co-head of design tech and lecturer of scenic design and scenic art in Pitt’s department of theatre arts. He won the Tina & David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award in 2017, in which he was honored for his service to his students.

When he is not in his seventeenth floor office, Downs is often below the ground floor of the Cathedral of Learning, in the basement production shop. Here, and in the Stephen Foster Memorial theaters, his team of students open sealed cans of paint while Downs picks up his brush to begin their work.

He instructs students in classes such as Introduction to Theatre Design and Introduction to Scene Painting, and works as an adviser and mentor for undergrads. He works alongside other theater professionals, including costume designer Karen Gilmer and lighting designer and theatre arts department chair Annmarie Duggan.

“I call Gianni my secret weapon,” Duggan said.

Duggan said having a professional on staff who is in the field is a must, as instructors like Downs take their real-life experiences and bring them back to the classroom, where students can analyze what went into the design. This type of work lends itself to one-on-one instruction, as Downs teaches students how to design a production’s set, and often follows his instruction with career guidance.

“If a student needs something, Gianni shows up, every single time,” Duggan said.

Laura Valenti, a current senior in the theatre arts department who will graduate in April and begin her career as a scenic designer, has experienced his support firsthand. Valenti has worked closely with Downs for the past four years and recently finished designing her own show, “Little Shop of Horrors,” in February.

“I tell everyone I want to be the next Gianni,” Valenti said.

Downs passed on his knowledge of working as a scenic designer to Valenti — including how to  work with design programs such as Adobe Photoshop, computer-aided design programs and Vectorworks.

Some of Downs’ former students are now successful professionals. Joe Spinogatti, who studied under Downs between 2013 and 2017, will finish up his first year of working as a professional projection designer in April, splitting his time between Pittsburgh, New York City and other locations.

“He has this palpable enthusiasm for everything that he does,” Spinogatti said of his mentor. “He just brings this energy to the room and it just kind of makes you want to learn and want to do well and succeed.”

Working with Duggan’s lighting and Downs’ set focus, Spinogatti’s field of projection design earned the team Pitt’s 2015 Innovation in Education Award.

“They are going to talk about how [Downs] was the fabric of the theater department he’s that type of guy,” Duggan said. “He landed where he belongs and he knows it, and he loves it.”

His family played a large role in helping him find his place. Downs comes from a family of artists, which encouraged an appreciation of the arts during childhood — something he later combined with a love of building and playing with software.

“I have been around artists all the time,” Downs said. “It’s always been in the back of my head that that is an option in the world, where I feel like some people may not ever even see [art] as an option.”

For his work at Pitt, Downs’ early stages often include both nondigital elements and digital renderings. Even though he teaches hand-drafting using pencils and paper, he now incorporates new aspects of technology such as 3-D printing.

“He can go in there and paint a backdrop with you like they did years ago, or he can take you to the computer and teach you how to render it so we can print that drop,” said Duggan. “He's kind of a renaissance guy in that way.”

For the upcoming Pitt show “Recoil,” Downs is mentoring scenic designer Cassandra Canavan — a natural sciences and theatre arts student — in her first production. He’s also serving as the show’s projection and sound designer, the latter an element he has yet to work with.

“I am pretty fearless when it comes to technology and just trying stuff out,” Downs said. “And design is the same regardless, it’s just a different medium.”

Duggan remarked that one of her favorite things to do is watch one of Downs’ introductory painting classes, where students of all skill levels learn to paint on a massive scale for the first time. Many of the students are actors and first-time painters and are often nervous to begin, but Downs’ patient instruction leads to the students being confident artists by the end of the term.

“I’ve never really understood the magic that he has to make that happen,” she said. “I keep trying to steal that magic, but I can’t find it. It’s his thing.”

Through this academic work, along with his professional designs, Downs’ art physically gives playwrights, directors and actors the setting to tell a story they couldn’t convey the same way without him.

“Anything you are seeing,” he said, “that is in my world.”